In The Most Unlikely Of Places: The store of left-wing votes in the countryside, revealed in the Taranaki-King Country by-election of 1998, was forgotten about almost as soon as it was discovered. Which was a great pity. Because left-wing Kiwis living in rural and provincial New Zealand have facts to share about life in the countryside: facts their urban comrades urgently need to hear.
IT’S ONE of those facts that stick in the back of your mind. Information that forces you to consider carefully the difference between important and significant. That the event which gave rise to the fact happened 20 years ago doesn’t matter one bit. Some happenings continue to resonate long after their occurrence. That’s why the left-wing Alliance winning polling-booths in the Taranaki-King Country towns of Eltham, Stratford and Te Kuiti will always be a fact that counts.
Those small victories remain significant because they show that even in the most conservative of blue-ribbon electorates there are pockets of left-wing support. Hundreds and, quite possibly, thousands of voters with a radically different take on rural life from the occupational groups that dominate the countryside: farmers, contractors, stock-and-station agents, bankers, accountants and agricultural supply companies. Voters who, given the right incentives, could become politically important.
Back in the days of First-Past-The Post, no one paid much attention to these voters. Since there were never enough of them to affect the outcome in National’s blue-ribbon seats, their votes simply weren’t worth the effort of soliciting. Whether they made it to the polling-booths was essentially up to them. For the Labour Party such seats represented little more than useful training-grounds for ambitious young activists like Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern (both of whom were blooded in the National Party’s Waikato heartland).
Everything should have changed with the advent of Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP). The new electoral system, which got its first run in 1996, transformed the country into what was, essentially, a single electorate. Under MMP, every vote cast for a political party counted. It no longer mattered that practically all of your neighbours voted for the Nats because there were plenty of other communities where Labour voters hugely outnumbered supporters of the National Party. Winning under MMP was all about getting every last one of your party’s supporters to a polling-booth so that their all-important Party Votes could be added to the nationwide tally.
The 1998 Taranaki-King Country by-election, necessitated by Jim Bolger’s appointment as New Zealand’s ambassador to the United States, was a politically crucial test for all the political parties represented in Parliament. As such, voter mobilisation was critical. The Alliance, in particular, was determined to show Labour how far away it still was from recovering its former easy dominance of the left-wing vote.
In the process, the Alliance persuaded upwards of 3,000 voters to get themselves to the polling-booths on its behalf. Who were they? No one really knows. The hewers of wood and the drawers of water of rural and provincial New Zealand probably: the people you never see on Country Calendar; the ones the cockies and their mates look down their noses at; the men and women who keep the roads passable and serve behind the counter in the local store. Who knew there were so many!
I thought about these voters earlier this week as I watched Jacinda Ardern deliver the Labour-NZF-Green Government’s verdict on Mycoplasma Bovis. To see a Labour Prime Minister and the head of Federated Farmers seated side-by-side, united in a common cause, was presumably as jarring for rural and provincial voters as it was for an old socialist like me. It set me to wondering how Labour’s numbers in the Newshub and One News opinion polls might be improved if the party trained-up some organisers and put them to work in all the little country towns studded across this country’s beleaguered dairy heartlands. After all, Jacinda herself was raised in Morrinsville, not Mt Albert. Come to think of it, isn’t Helen Clark a Waikato farmer’s daughter?
There’s a widely held view among farmers (especially dairy-farmers) that Labour and the Greens have it in for them. That the Left doesn’t understand what it means to work on the land – just one biosecurity failure away from disaster. Well, there’s some truth to that. And, in many respects, the responsibility for this growing urban-rural split lies with the Left.
The store of left-wing votes in the countryside revealed by the Taranaki-King Country by-election was forgotten about almost as soon as it was discovered. Which was a great pity. Because left-wing Kiwis living in rural and provincial New Zealand have facts to share about life in the countryside: facts their urban comrades urgently need to hear.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 1 June 2018.